The first line of the South Pacific show tune “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” reminds me of bullies. The Rodgers and Hammerstein song proclaims, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.” To me, that sums up the very reasons that bullies exist: hate and fear. (For those not familiar, the full lyrics appear at the end of this post.)
If children have to be taught to bully, then they also need to be taught prevention. In the Early Childhood programs at The Guidance Center of Westchester, we start very early just as the song recommends: “You've got to be taught before it's too late. Before you are six or seven or eight.”
What can and what should we teach? “We can teach friendship skills to lessen both the likelihood of victimization and its impact. Studies show that students who have at least one friend are less likely to be bullied, and when they are, those who have a good friend have fewer behavioral problems as a result.” (http://www.cfchildren.org/advocacy/bullying-prevention.aspx)
When my youngest daughter was about four years old, she was invited to a friend’s house for her first play date. I was so excited for her, but she didn’t want to go. When she asked me why I thought she should go I said something like, “Well, that’s what friends do. They play at each other’s houses.” And she wisely answered me, “I guess I don’t know how to be a friend!” That is when I realized that building friendships requires actual skills and that we can, and should, teach them to our children.
At TGCW, we use a bullying prevention curriculum called Second Step in our pre-school programs. This curriculum teaches children empathy, impulse-control or self-regulation, and problem solving. All the skills that are needed to develop and maintain a friendship.
Empathy is the ability to recognize feelings another person is having. With the very young, we must first teach them to identify their own feelings. Here’s an example of how to teach empathy. If your little one starts crying as you leave for work, look at her and say: “I see you are sad that I am leaving, but I will be back.” Give her a stuffed animal or pacifier to help her “feel” less sad. In doing this, you’re also teaching her to “self-regulate.” Soon she will grab her stuffed animal or pacifier when she starts to feel sad. At our Parents Place program, we often see a two-year-old child who has already learned this lesson go give a stuffed animal to another crying child. Ah, the beginnings of friendship!
Around the age of three or four, children can start learning social skills such as taking turns, not speaking when someone else is, and sharing physical space with larger numbers of children. Social skills help a child know how to respond to bullying. If students are passive, they are more likely to be a target of bullying; but, if they are aggressive, the bullying can escalate.
We teach children to be assertive by standing up for themselves, knowing their feelings and having the skills to negotiate compromise. After a child can do this for himself, he can do it for his peers. When we teach these “community” skills and stress each person’s responsibilities to the “community,” bullying is less likely to happen. If children refuse to “stand around and watch or laugh” when they witness bullying, the bullying will dissipate naturally.
Bully prevention starts at the very beginning (and, while a very fine place to start, it is an entirely different song, perhaps for another day!). If we get it right “before they are six, or seven, or eight,” we won’t need an annual month of awareness to eradicate bullying!
October is National Bully Prevention Awareness month.
Guest blogger: Donna Morrison, a seasoned mom, grandma and early childhood expert. Donna currently serves as the Director of Early Childhood Programs for The Guidance Center of Westchester.
Lyrics to South Pacific’s “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”
You've got to be taught to hate and fear,
You've got to be taught from year to year,
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!